Being a teenager for me, like for everyone else, had its challenges, but one of the toughest came immediately after I finished school when I joined what might well be the worst musical-theater production in history. Over a month that summer, for two hours every evening, plus occasional matinées, I would sit with the band in a damp-smelling theatre and play bass guitar for a cheesy, cheery retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. As a result, the show’s opening number has been branded into my memory, in all its sub-sub-sub-Sondheim awfulness. In my head I can still hear it: “Joan of Arc was burnt today!” sing the chorus of medieval French townsfolk as they run around the stage in a state of high excitement; then the crowd parts for a ringing solo line from the Rouen town crier: “Nineteen years and still a virgin! Other details still emerging!”
It wasn’t supposed to be a comedy, but many of the cast and crew found this bit of car-crash libretto hilarious. As the performances went on, though, I found it less funny and something more like a personal wake-up call: It wasn’t going to be too long before, I, like poor crispy Joan, would be an unnailed 19-year-old. Up until that point, this hadn’t really troubled me — I’d been much more focused on finding a girlfriend than finding fourth base. But now the situation went from intriguing technicality to matter of extreme existential urgency. What if I got hit by a bus, or as seemed more likely as the nights went on, tied to a stake and set alight by a mob of outraged Les Mis fans? I didn’t want to go down in history as 1) a member of a theater band someone had decided to call The Holy Flames; and 2) a person who’d never ‘properly’ had sex.
With hindsight, giving myself a deadline might well have been helpful. Most teenagers (not to mention many adults), however they identify and whatever their sexual preferences, are groping in the dark when it comes to confronting their own virginity. The V-word is surely one of modern culture’s most confusing concepts: Is it a milestone? A membrane? A myth? Is “virgin” a burden that for most of history only women and girls have had to bear, or have males always shared in the label too, even before the Porky’s franchise launched the weird genre of high-school hormones-and-hymens farce movies?
The whole field of deflowering is a slippery mess of contradictions, and none of this is helped by mixed messages coming from media, parents, teachers, pornographers, preachers and perhaps most importantly peer groups — where someone’s ongoing virgin status might be celebrated or shamed, praised or pitied, depending on who’s in the room, and how religious they are.
Even in secular social contexts, where issues of sanctity and purity shouldn’t apply, a person’s induction into the realm of physical sex is still routinely built up to be a moment of Neil-Armstrong-stepping-onto-the-moon-like magnitude. “Virginity loss, or sexual debut, is still such a marker for people for a few reasons,” says Rachel Lynn Golden, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. “First because it signals a transition for adolescents into adulthood and can feel like a significant stepping stone in development. Second, because sexuality has been tied to risk for so long.” And third, indicating that the concept might have long outstayed its welcome by now, she says, “Virginity loss is a pretty heteronormative idea. It signals risk for pregnancy and that carries centuries-old connotations of responsibility.”
It’s this normalizing aspect, or in teenage terms, social and peer-group pressure (pressure to be straight, and for sex to happen by a certain age) that prompts many psychologists who work in the field to prefer the phrase “sexual debut” to “virginity.” Another reason to dispense with the lofty, antiquated term, she suggests, “is because of the religious connotation ‘virginity’ confers and the desire to distinguish religious and scientific terms.”
The science around the loss of virginity, though, is also a bit baffling, with researchers arriving at conflicting conclusions, both on how to define sexual debut and on what it means for people when they go through it. The one thing on which most seem to agree is the typical age it happens, so that might be a good place to start.
Reflecting a number of similar findings, the Centers for Disease Control pegs the mean age at which American males experience their first “virginal sexual intercourse” at just over 17, with females following, on average, three or four months later — and this pattern has remained relatively steady since at least 2002. And when psychologists and social scientists describe this as “the normative age,” they really mean it. According to Golden, “We find in most studies that 70 percent of U.S. adolescents experience sexual debut by age 17.”
Strikingly, a 2018 survey of 500 Americans and 500 Europeans conducted by a U.K. health-care company (which, incidentally, goes beyond male-female penetration and suggests 17.9 is the average age for gay first-time sex and 16.2 for bi) reports the typical age of sexual debut has remained roughly constant across all the generations going back to World War II. For Baby Boomers, it was 17.6 years old; for Generation X, it’s a little later at 18.1; and for millennials, it’s 17.4. The only significant shift appears to be among the most recent cohort, Generation Z (usually defined as those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s) whose average cherry has been popping soon after their 16th birthdays.
Knowing what the numbers define as normal can be a problem in itself, though — especially for men, according to Stephen Snyder, a sex therapist also based in NYC and author of Love Worth Making — How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. “Worrying about still being a virgin can make you feel less confident. Male confidence is a prime characteristic that women value. So a heterosexual male virgin who has low confidence as a result may find he has a harder time attracting a partner.” Enduring a culture in which sex saturates our entertainment, advertising and daily conversations, “men and women also tend to worry they’ll be ‘outed’ as virgins — by their peers, and by potential partners,” in Snyder’s experience, adding to their sexual anxiety and inhibitions.
This view of debut, where cleaving closely to that normative age of 17 seems the most risk-free strategy, is supported by a public-health study published in 2008, which reported that “the timing of first sexual intercourse is related to long-term sexual health outcomes.” Among men who had had their sexual debut significantly earlier than the “normative age” (defined as 16.8 in this study), “Ratings of general health status were lower.” And for both early male virginity-losers and those who lost it a few years later — men in their early 20s — there was a higher incidence of problems with sexual function; both groups “more frequently reported having had problems associated with becoming sexually aroused, achieving and maintaining an erection and reaching orgasm.” (In women, the effects of timing seemed more muted, with researchers finding late female starters more frequently reported problems with sexual arousal but no other ongoing health issues.)
In her own work, though, Rachel Lynn Golden has found pretty much the opposite. Looked at in a more holistic way, the timing of young people’s sexual debut doesn’t have to have such drastic implications for later life. “A lot of folks, especially parents, wonder about this,” she says, but “in truth there isn’t an ‘ideal’ age for debut. People who have an early debut tend to have more feelings of depression and anxiety as well as substance use, and lower self-worth. But many studies demonstrate that these experiences precede debut, and thus, aren’t necessarily caused by it.” In other words, diving into an active sex-life early might be just one expression among many of a risk-taking personality.
Or, equally, it might just be a sign of a healthy appetite for good times. In her 2016 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, Golden used a “sex-positive framework” to account for the emotional and psychological rewards consensual sex can bring — such as boosts in confidence, enhanced sex appeal, and for men in particular, a more satisfying dating life — and didn’t just focus on the risks. From this perspective, she says, “What we found was that there were positive changes with debut regardless of its timing. So whether adolescents experienced early [prior to 15 years old], normative or late [after 19] debut, they also experienced reduced anxiety and depression, increased feelings of sexual satisfaction and romantic appeal and decreased use of substances afterward.”
In “embracing the complexity” of adolescent sexual behavior, Golden’s team found that whatever social anxieties over extended virginity might be at large in young-adult life, sex is very often the cure for this, and not the tether for a lifelong hangup other studies make it out to be: “Having sex later is likely not predictive of differences in outcomes — we saw benefits for adolescents at all ages.” Those whose sexual debut happens later, meanwhile, are experiencing it late for a variety of reasons, says Golden: “Some may be more religious, others may be more socially isolated, etc. There isn’t one solid predictor of membership in this group.”
The 4,000-Year-Old Virgin
There’s one thing Golden’s research does seem to confirm about the popular notion of sexual awakening (albeit in a limited way, since she cautions the study wasn’t set up to explore gender differences): Shaped as it is by conventional heterosexual stereotypes, the whole first-time-with-the-opposite-sex shebang tends to lead to a very different social afterglow for boys than it has for girls. “The one difference we found was for adolescent male-identified individuals who have an early debut, overall they reported greater sexual satisfaction and greater dating satisfaction relative to female-identified individuals with an early debut.”
This echoes a 2015 study, which found that among 11- to 16-year-olds in Iowa and Pennsylvania boys who were already having sex were gaining friends and kudos for it among their peer group (the researchers measured this as an 88 percent increase in peer acceptance; i.e., player status). At the same time, being sexually active early seemed to make girls less popular (expressed in the study as a 45 percent drop in peer acceptance; i.e., we can probably assume, slut-shaming).
Which brings up another reason why “virgin” is the wrong word to use for people who have never had sex in general, but especially when applied to men. Because the whole one-sided history of the concept shows that the notion of “male virginity,” has had very little in common with bona fide female “virginity” as it’s been understood by various Western cultures down the centuries.
In her 2016 book Virgin: The Untouched History, Hanne Blank points out, “Even today, ‘virgin’ tends to mean female unless stated otherwise.” And throughout history, “The male body has never commonly been labeled as being virginal even when it is, but rather as ‘continent’ or ‘celibate.’ … Additionally, virginity has never mattered in regard to the way men are valued, or whether they were considered fit to marry, or indeed, to be permitted to survive.”
Instead, the contradictory values schoolkids in Iowa and Pennsylvania were seen attaching to male versus female first-time sex (slaps on the back versus slap-downs respectively) can be traced all the way back to the conception of Western civilization. Among the elites of both Ancient Athens and Rome, a virginal daughter could command a high price as a bride — either in terms of dowry or as an upgrade to their family’s social status. As a result, fathers in both cultures had the right to kill daughters who had lost their virginity prior to marriage.
And while Rome’s revered Vestal virgins — priestesses of the virgin goddess Vesta, tasked with protecting the city by keeping its sacred fire burning — were among society’s most powerful citizens, according to Plutarch, the punishment for any who allowed themselves to be seduced was being buried in an underground room where they would starve to death. Meanwhile, “A Roman boy’s first ejaculation,” says Blank, “was something to celebrate, both within the household and at the annual March 17th festival known as the Liberalia.” (Or, as the holiday is now known of course, St. Splat-prick’s Day.)
When Christianity took over the policing of female virginity — a process which, according to Blank, “began to coalesce about half a century after Jesus’ death, but required most of the next five centuries to mature” — the concept broadened from being primarily a socio-economic concern for families to a holy state of innocence wrapped up in mystical notions of purity and sanctity. It’s from this perspective that our modern double standard of virginity loss has evolved.
“It takes a ‘real man’ to convert a virginal ‘little girl’ into a sexually eager ‘real woman,’” writes Blank. “By being the first to have sex with her, the man literally makes the woman. … Men also are ‘made’ when they lose their virginity, but in a very different way. … A man who loses his virginity … gains mastery. Our slang reflects it: a man ‘pops her cherry,’ but a woman ‘gives it up to him,’ a man ‘breaks her in,’ a woman ‘gets her hymen busted.’”
This narrative we’ve inherited, that boys only achieve manhood by claiming their first sexual scalp, is one that come to dominate popular culture, magnified and intensified by our entertainment industry, says Harris O’Malley, a dating coach who blogs as Dr. NerdLove and is author of the book New Game +: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex, & Dating. “We are festooned with coming-of-age stories where people are making their little transition from boy to man, and having sex is a big part of it,” he explains. “We see this in movies, we see this in television shows, and often it comes with major events — with prom, or with graduation.”
For many heterosexual men, this sublimated storyline is what informs both their sense of panic and a collapse of self-esteem when they begin to see themselves as falling behind the pace. “Because we see sex as being definitive of a man’s value — the more sex you have, the more desirable you are, the more manly you are — there’s a certain amount of imperative to try to have it as soon as you can,” says O’Malley. “So by the same token, the later you have it, the more that means you’re no longer within that narrative — and the more there must be something wrong with you.”
And while in recent years, writers for TV and film are beginning to paint a more complex picture of teenage sexuality — “It’s gotten better in addressing the idea that teens and women in particular are sexual beings,” O’Malley says — the idea of it still being okay to be a virgin “hasn’t quite penetrated yet.”
All too often, for young men in particular, comparing themselves with this scripted norm (“Nineteen years and still a virgin…”) builds the act of having sex into something much greater than it really is, overshadowing their lives to the point where being a virgin becomes an essential part of their identity. Absorbed wholesale in this way, says O’Malley, the virginity-to-manhood plot can be toxic. “You can see this in the incel community where they’ve become convinced that because they’re virgins and supposedly can’t find people to sleep with them, they’re subhuman and that there’s something so wrong with them that there’s nothing to be done; that they might as well just lay down and rot.”
It’s difficult to avoid falling into this trap, and much harder to climb out of it once you’re in it, he says, “Because it’s a case of trying to undo a lot of cultural programming. But a lot of it comes down to learning to find your value in things other than your sexuality. Because we’re more than just who we slept with. And not being willing to blindly absorb the idea that sex says anything about you as a person.”
Another misconception the coming-of-age narrative gives to carnal inductees is that one particular version of sex (vaginal penetration) is the only thing our culture counts as a legitimate cherry-pop — even though in millions of people’s sex lives it’s something that never figures. As Rachel Lynn Golden says, “Even though it can be a significant milestone, in our field, we really do need to evolve past using first penile-vaginal sex as a marker of adolescent sexual experiences full stop. To be more inclusive to all populations (LGBTQ) and a variety of experiences that may feel like a marker of transition to a sexual self — oral sex, anal sex — we need to be more expansive in our research and terminology.”
Recasting virginity loss as a process that takes place over a series of sexual experiences and encounters — a gradual transition rather than a graduation ceremony — could be a useful way to defuse a widespread source of needless adolescent anxiety. After all, as Harris O’Malley says, when you have sex for the first time (assuming no pregnancy or STDs), “Nothing honestly changes. The only real difference is that you’ve now had an experience you haven’t previously had: Your acne isn’t going to clear up, people aren’t going to suddenly smell the lack of virginity on you.”
When it did eventually happen, this definitely proved true for me, especially the bit about the acne. Virginity is neither a curse nor a state of grace, to be banished at the prod of a magic wand. And if I’d seen it as more of a bridge to adulthood than a toll gate, or more of an evolution than a toggle switch from one state of being to another, I might have spared myself all those months of agonizing over a bonkers song about a medieval super-virgin who heard voices in her head commanding her to be chaste.
All things considered, maybe I shouldn’t have made such a song and dance about it.